In 2013 Walt Disney Animation released Frozen, a movie which found the type of mainstream success and cultural impact that had not been created by the company in decades. In the 90’s Disney animated features dominated children’s entertainment. Movies such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin still live on in pop culture twenty years later. Whether this is due to Disney’s monopolisation of the animation industry, their marketing clout or their ability to crush its opposition is up for debate, but the dip in popularity after 2000 cannot be ignored.
But now it is 2016 and Disney owns Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel and is re-emerging as the leading powerhouse of children’s entertainment. It is currently on a streak of four well received, successful and profitable animated features (Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia) and it appears that Moana may be a continuation of this recent trend.
The film is a tale inspired by Polynesian myths of Demi-God Maui. The titular character, Maona, is a chieftain of an island tribe that is chosen by the ocean to seek out the Demi-God and force him to restore the heart of island goddess Te Fiti to bring balance back to nature. It is a classic hero’s journey that is totally in line with the most successful of Disney’s features. Moana’s grandmother plays her wise mentor figure while doing a toned down Rafiki impression, Moana is warned from travelling beyond the horizon like Simba is told not to venture into the shadows, and of course the film’s subject is a Demi-God amongst mortals, ala Hercules. The film is a formulaic mish mash of multiple features that have brought success to Disney in the past and the film knows this. At one point Maona denies being a princess to which Maui responds “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you are a princess,” it is a joke which Disney have made before and will make again as their product becomes more self-aware and nostalgia plays a larger part in their films. People cannot watch Disney films in a vacuum.
Yet despite the repeating themes and beats Maona still feels oddly fresh. As with the most lasting Disney films the strength of Maona is in its musical numbers, which blend an upbeat poppy aesthetic with splashes of world music, in much the same way that the Lion King sprinkled Africana into its tunes. Critics may argue against ‘cultural appropriation’ but the strength of Disney films is their ability to place familiar tales in unfamiliar locales and to introduce a new culture in a non-threatening way, Moana succeeds in this greatly.
It is through the blending and synergy between music and visuals that Maona creates its most lasting moments. The opening number which introduces the island is incredibly efficient at establishing the narrative drive of our lead and creating a sense of community. Maui’s first and only song is accompanied by a blend of 3D animation and 2D papercraft that is beautifully created and unique in the scale of the film, the Demi-God’s tattoos also providing a 2D canvas for additional storytelling. The animation is beautifully crisp and the details shine through in the textures of the rocks and wood grain of ships, the world is fully realised within its limited pallete of locations.
Jermaine Clement voices Tamatoa, a bejewelled crab monster who breaks out into a musical number that comes across as a mix between Dr Frank N Furter and Bowie. The sequence is excellent fun and provides a vividly stylised deep sea, neon coloured boss battle as Maona and Maui attempt to retrieve a magical weapon from Tamatoa’s back. The scene has the same conceit of the giant skeleton scene from a film earlier in the year, Kubo and The Two Strings. However, whereas Kubo approaches its subject matter with a horror aesthetic, Maona creates a lavish, colourful, highly expressive scene that shines and bounces with a kid friendly energy that is fun but somewhat removes any dramatic tension.
The film’s structure is surprisingly straightforward and its plotting as basic as can be but is largely effective at creating emotional reactions and character beats that work. Maona is a head strong and tenacious character and Maui is a charismatic, loveable egomaniac. HeiHei, the simple chicken is a comically effective animal sidekick that is used just enough to get tiresome. The film advances logically and reaches a satisfying conclusion following a battle with a well-designed, but simple lava monster and it is peppered throughout with swelling music and refrains that tug at heartstrings.
It is hard not to smile throughout the film but it is harder to convince yourself that the film offers anything more than a fun and simple story.
The jokes in the film are few and far between and never stand out particularly well, but the style and story and beautiful score more than make up for that. The film is not the next Frozen, but can certainly hold its own next to other Disney heavyweights.